I believe my first February 14th Women’s Memorial March was in 1997 in Downtown Eastside Vancouver. I was the support worker at PACE Society at the time and I was asked to say a few words. This was a great honour.
During the March we would customarily stop at the steps of the old Vancouver Police Station to listen and to share inspirational speeches and calls to action from women’s organizations. I remember how the community — a diverse grouping of Elders, family members, residents and community workers — claimed the Hastings and Main intersection. Medicines of sage and sweet grass enveloped us as we lifted each other to the spirit. Some years, we would look to the sky and see the eagles circling. For all of us, this was confirmation that we were joined on a righteous path. As we marched, onlookers joined us, people waved from buildings, and the women’s warrior song came sweetly out of our throats. We marched on, strong.
Over the years, I served as a March Guardian a few times. Guardians provided support to Elders and family members and made sure marchers were safe. In 2010, the year Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympic Games, I was serving as a Guardian when I came upon a woman who was attending the March for the first time. I answered her questions about the community and spoke to her about anti-oppression organizing. As we continued to talk, she shared that she was frustrated because we kept stopping and standing about for no apparent reason. Since we were located in the middle of the March, no one could see anything that was going at the front. Looking behind offered no clues to such a neophyte. From her vantage point, the March felt like a crawl and the constant stopping and starting made no sense.
I looped my arm with hers and gently told her with words not so different than these that: We stop to consecrate with fire. We stop to bless with tears. We stop to leave roses at crime scenes and at last seen locations. We stop to remember with our hearts and souls. We stop to honour our dead. We walked along in silence a short distance and then stopped again. She looked at me with eyes swimming in yet to fall tears and howled: “What do you mean?” This was not a question directed to me. She was calling out in bewilderment and anger to her society, a society where patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism unite in callous and dangerous ways. The blood of poor women, Indigenous women, and women of colour mark our streets such that we cannot march but a few steps without stopping.
I March for the reasons we stop. No justice, no peace.
I March for the women, men and transgendered people in and from the sex industry who died and who continue to die at the hands of individuals who wake up every morning to practice and reproduce oppressions of every kind.
I March to heal my resentments, to seal the memories of missing and murdered women and to hold them safe from those who always seek to rewrite our histories.
I March to commune with those who have political perspectives on sex work that are different than mine. I March for those things we have in common: grief; a desire for economic security for women; an end to gendered violence. And, finally, to amplify the voices of the women silenced by our warring factions.
In the late 1990s I sat for days at the bedside of a woman who was dying; a woman I met while doing street outreach to sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. She later became a regular and much loved member of PACE Society. One day, two Indigenous people walked into the hospital room; an older man and a woman a little older than me. I was as shocked to see them as they were to see that there was someone in the room. After I explained who I was, they told me that they were the grandfather and sister of the woman who lay dying.
Together, we held vigil.
Sometimes I walk at the Memorial March with the Raven staff carved for me by that grandfather. Sometimes my staff walks me. We had laid to rest a daughter who died because of how she was forced to engage with the sex industry — in secret, in fear, and with no ability to exercise rights of any kind. I March for Indigenous women.
I March for the African Diaspora — for Blackness — to give voice to my colonial experience — one rarely recognized in Canada.
I March for the Black women who are overrepresented amongst the missing and the murdered.
I March for a little Black girl who lays beaten and confused.
I March for a young Black mother who was involved in the sex industry to finance her independence so that she could house, feed and clothe herself and her child.
I March for a Black woman who is no longer a sex worker, but who, like many others, must keep this experience hidden from the world to shield herself from the brutality of social stigma and racism.
I March so that these Black tears can flow through me and into the world.
I March because it’s the only place where I can cry without explanation.
Raven Bowen defended her criminology Master’s thesis on March 28, 2013 and passed with no revisions. While this stellar achievement was based on years of hard work in community development and research in support of sex workers, she also sees her success as a tribute to the memory of Laurine Harrison, a long-time SFU employee who died in 2007. Raven left home at 15 years of age and was a single mother at 17. She has used her experiences with homelessness, poverty and underground economies to inform her work with sex workers and exploited youth, and to motivate her to seek social justice for marginalized individuals. Her university career has been inspired by 18 years of community support and outreach work with sex workers. Raven has strived to build alliances between sex workers and government and law enforcement officials to develop programmes to reduce the violence and predation experienced by this group of women. She has been instrumental in establishing many projects and programs in Vancouver, British Columbia. In addition she co-founded The BC Coalition of Experiential Communities, the West Coast Cooperative of Sex Industry Professionals, HUSTLE Men on the Move (an outreach and support project for male and transgendered workers), and the Mobile Access Project (MAP). In her role as Executive Director of PACE, Raven co-developed the MAP project with Kate Gibson, Executive Director of WISH Drop In Center Society. This outreach project has been in operation for the past 10 years and continues to provide supplies, support and resource information to active sex workers. The assault, rape and the brutal murder of numerous street involved women have inspired Raven to help develop these programmes and continue to promote social change. Raven co-authored a chapter on collaborative research with sex workers as co-producers of knowledge, for a book entitled: “Power Plays: Rethinking the Politics of Sex Work”. Currently, Raven works as a research assistant at the University of British Columbia School of Nursing on the SPACES Project (Sex, Power, Agency, Consent, Environment and Safety) http://blogs.ubc.ca/spaces/
Photo credit Hari Alluri